The Dark Lord, Sauron, has many servants and slaves. Orcs, trolls, beasts, Men, and evil spirits all subject themselves to his horrible will and wreak evil all across the lands of Middle-earth: North, South, East, and West. None, however, are more feared and terrible than the Nazgûl, the Ring-wraiths. Men they once were, kings of old who fell into their greed and lust for power and in so doing were ensnared by Sauron and the promises he bound them to using nine Rings. As Men their lives wore on until well past their natural endings and further still until they were wholly shadow, in full a part of the “spirit” realm into which Sauron dragged them.
Most terrible of all was the Witch-king of Angmar who spread fear like wildfire wheresoever he went. But few know of his second-in-command, only slightly less wretched and horrifying. He is Khamûl, the Lieutenant of Dol Guldur, the Shadow of the East, the Black Easterling.
With Black Riders on everyone’s brains, the Nazgûl have gotten a lot of attention, and they are a very interesting subject of study. Here are the most awful of the servants of Sauron bumbling through the Shire, and then Bree. Later on they ruin the armies of Gondor and set fear even in Saruman. Orcs whisper their names in hushed, fearful voices and yet they cannot seem to catch four puny Hobbits.
Back in the Core Set, however, we caught our first glimpse of the Ring-wraiths in another time and place, swirling high above the Dark Lord’s abode of old: Dol Guldur. This was the seat of Khamûl, Nazgûl of Dol Guldur. Let’s go back and revisit this old enemy and see what we can find about the second-in-command of the Ring-wraiths!
EXPLORE THE LEGEND
Now at that time the Chieftain of the Ring-wraiths dwelt in Minas Morgul with six companions, while the second to the Chief, Khamûl the Shadow of the East, abode in Dol Guldur as Sauron’s lieutenant, with one other as his messenger.
This quote about the deployment of the Ring-wraiths at the time of before the War of the Ring is found in the Unfinished Tales account of “The Hunt for the Ring”. As it goes, Sauron crafted the Rings of Power in the Second Age before he was captured by the Númenóreans and nearly destroyed in the ruin of their island home. Then he was, or could be if he so chose, fair to look upon and bore the name Annatar (“gift-lord”) and he tutored the Elves of Eregion in that time through his deceit. They created 16 powerful rings, but hid their three from Him. He took the 16 and convinced many of the free folk of Middle-earth to accept his gifts. The rings were, of course, imbued with power enough to corrupt and ensnare. Men, being the most easily swayed and corruptible, fell the furthest and the swiftest and the Nine Lords that Sauron claimed became the Nazgûl (“ring-wraiths”).
Khamûl, the Nazgûl of Dol Guldur, makes for some good researching because he is the only Ring-wraith we know by name and yet he is never named in any of the texts that were published during Tolkien’s lifetime. It was not until the release of Unfinished Tales, which provided sorted versions of several of Tolkien’s manuscripts, that we learned something about him and his history. For starters, he was an Easterling King whose realm was far away near the Sea of Rhûn (they sure do love the circumflex out that way). In The Silmarillion it says that he, like the Black Númenóreans, who also fell to their Rings, practiced some form of bad magic. Perhaps he even worshiped Sauron, like his later servants would, as his king and god, before being presented with the Ring. It seems likely; to be the second-worst of the worst of the worst one has to be truly terrible.
Through the aforementioned manuscripts we are able to tie the person of Khamûl to the activities we see the Nazgûl doing in the books. For example, he is the Black Rider who comes up the Hill and speaks with the Gaffer just before Frodo, Sam, and Pippin depart. This allows for an interesting tangent, as this great and terrible Wraith is deflected by a few strong words from the senior Gamgee. How is this so? The answer is twofold, I feel. On the one hand, the Nazgûl are not yet there to stir up real trouble and reveal their full power and terror. Not yet. Were they, they would have sown a fear throughout the Shire, sending the Hobbits away in terror.
Still, you may say, Aragorn says their power is in darkness and solitude. Even if they’re not coming out swinging, like they did in the film, couldn’t he have intimidated the Gaffer into giving him the information he wanted? Yes and no, and the ‘no’ comes both from what I said before, about the Nazgûl keeping things on the down-low, and from the inherent power of the Shire. As Gandalf says later in the books, there is “power, too, of another kind in the Shire”. It’s a quiet power to resist evil in its own small way, and it’s enough to avert the slightly subdued Khamûl. And let us not forget that Tolkien believed very heavily in “chance” and wrote about it quite a bit. If only we have that kind of divine luck when the Hide tests roll around…
It appears that Tolkien too puzzled about the relative weakness of the Nazgûl at the beginning of Fellowship of the Ring in comparison to their lofty pedigree of evil and later terror in Return of the King. A clue to his explanation of the discrepancy can be found in the footnote to Khamûl’s introduction in Unfinished Tales in which Christopher Tolkien refers to the notes his father took while writing about the Black Riders. “Of Khamûl it is said here that he was the most ready of all the Nazgûl, after the Black Captain himself, to perceive the presence of the Ring, but also the one whose power was most confused and diminished by daylight”. I wonder how the old Gaffer would have fared then, if they’d met at night rather than a sunny Shire afternoon!
Returning to Khamûl’s role in the “Escape from Dol Guldur” quest however, the Appendices say that in 2951, just after his return to Mordor, Sauron sent two Nazgûl to Dol Guldur to mind his operations there. Again, through the manuscripts we find out that the chief of these wraiths is Khamûl the Easterling, there to help prepare the forces that Sauron will release in his great offensive years later. These will go and strike Lothlórien, as well as Dale and the Lonely Mountain.
This is the Nazgûl we encounter in the Core Set, ready for war but unexpecting of a small pack of heroes come to rescue their friend and escape the dark of Dol Guldur.
SHOWCASE THE ARTWORK
In the artwork for this card, Khamûl is seen on his fell-beast, flying along the outskirts of Dol Guldur above Mirkwood. What I really like about the picture is the angle the artist has chosen: we see the back of the beast as it cuts a sharp bank and we get the upwards view of the fortress resting on its cliff. Of course this begs the question of chronology — in the books the Ring-wraiths don’t get their fell, winged steeds until after the disaster at the Ford of Bruinen. Did they have these beasts before the events of the book? I suppose it doesn’t matter. The artist, David A. Nash, keeps his portfolio online for your viewing pleasure. He says this was the very first image that he made for the Lord of the Rings Card Game and that it was a lot of fun!
As you can imagine, there is not a whole lot of work out there devoted to Khamûl specifically. A thorough peep on DeviantArt did yield some good results, and I like this work particularly. Russian artist Righon portrays the temptation of Khamûl by Sauron (in his “fair form”, Annatar). Khamûl seems wounded and ensorcelled, deep in the throes of a temptation that will pull him into a miserable life of service to a dark god.
A more general sweep for images of Nazgûl also provides some great, original work. Here is one by Ekaterina Kovalevskaya where we see the Witch-king before his life is swept away into the spirit realm, while he is still a great king with a ring glowing on his finger.
DISCUSS THE CARDS
“Escape from Dol Guldur” was the third of three quests in the Core Set. It was, by far, the most challenging and remains so to this day. The players begin the quest down one whole hero and have to get out with enough gas in the proverbial tank left to take down a Wraith on wings. And this Ring-wraith is no slouch: he boasts 4 attack, 3 defense, and 9 hit points. Even by today’s post-Heirs of Númenor standard that’s still nothing to sneeze at. He became even tougher when the errata kicked in, declaring that attachments could not be played on him. No traps, nothing. Makes sense, in terms of theme and gameplay: who can throw a net over a flying Nazgûl?
There has been plenty of discussion of strategy in taking this foe out when he swoops down after stage 2, even with only the Core Set at your disposal. In his “Beorn’s Path” series, Beorn specifically goes through this quest with only the Core Set and defeats the Nazgûl by using the 4 damage response from Gandalf twice over, then a swift poke in the eye from a Gondorian Spearman, along with some keen ursine ingenuity. The Progression Series used a hulked-out Gimli to smite the foe, which is a pretty standard tactic from the Core Set era.
The Nazgûl are not going away. We have many quest cycles ahead of us, not to mention the saga expansions, which will see us all the way through the events of the books. The players can expect to face the Ring-wraiths many more times to come, but the Nazgûl of Dol Guldur will always remain as the first chance to tackle Sauron’s most hated servants.